Mexico’s populist demagogue president is gutting fair elections
But these promising economic winds are being stifled by bad politics. For most of the past three decades, Mexico had a run of presidents who were serious about policy and tried to modernize the country, albeit with varying degrees of success. Alas, that luck has run out. Mexico’s president since 2018, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, also known as AMLO, is a populist demagogue straight out of the worst pages of Latin American history.
López Obrador’s covid policies were a disaster; Mexico has had one of the highest covid case-fatality ratios in the world. His economic policies have been anti-growth; by one estimate, nearly 4 million Mexicans have slipped into poverty since 2019. He has failed to take on the drug cartels. And he has attacked Mexican political institutions, many of which had acquired legitimacy and competence only recently. His current effort might be the most dangerous.
For most of the 20th century, Mexico was a one-party state whose fraudulent elections ensured that the ruling party always won. That changed in 2000, when President Ernesto Zedillo’s electoral reforms enabled the country’s first free and fair elections, which the ruling party lost. Out of the same spirit of democratization came the National Electoral Institute, which has developed a reputation for being independent and competent.
That agency is now López Obrador’s target. Last month, his party passed a bill to drastically weaken that agency. He initially pushed a plan that would have killed the agency altogether and replaced it with a new body, but he couldn’t clear the bar to pass a constitutional amendment. So he has settled for legislation that hollows it out. Its budget will be cut by nearly a third. Many local offices will be closed, and 6,000 staff members will be laid off. Its powers will be curtailed, taking some teeth out of the watchdog. He says he is doing this to improve the voting process and save tens of millions of dollars a year.
López Obrador cannot legally run for a second term as president; he is taking these steps to ensure that the next elections result in legislative victory for his party, which he plans to continue to dominate. The Supreme Court is expected to hear challenges to the president’s gutting of the agency in the near future.
The elections agency has not been perfect, but it is a pillar of Mexico’s fledgling democracy. Polls show it is the country’s most trusted institution after the armed forces. López Obrador’s attack on it has been part of his assault on several nongovernmental organizations and independent government agencies, including those dealing with corruption and human rights. In an excellent article, Bloomberg’s Shannon K. O’Neil writes that López Obrador has raided the coffers of public funds for artists and academics, weaponized the judiciary, and routinely attacked those who criticize him.
López Obrador’s entire term in office has been out of a Peronist textbook — claim to speak for the poor, attack the elites, and meanwhile run a shoddy, incompetent government. When a journalist reported on the lavish life his son lived in the United States, he revealed the journalist’s personal income information — a move some have called illegal and unconstitutional. López Obrador campaigned on a promise to fight corruption. But according to the nongovernmental group Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, his government awards three out of four contracts using a “no bid” system that does not even ask for competing offers.
Meanwhile, the state has lost its capacity to rein in the drug cartels, which run large parts of the country. López Obrador campaigned on the slogan of “hugs, not bullets,” but in office he simply ceded the issue to the military, which is deeply riddled with corruption and drug money. In 2020, the United States apprehended a former defense minister, on charges of being in league with the cartels. The government of Mexico asked the United States to drop the charges and Washington agreed.
Former U.S. attorney general William P. Barr recently described López Obrador as “the cartels’ chief enabler.”
López Obrador’s attack on the election agency is essentially personal. He believes that he won the 2006 and 2012 elections but was denied his due (independent observers do not agree). In fact, much of his presidency is an act of narcissism — he holds daily news conferences that go on for hours, he attacks the state because its agencies limit his powers, and now he is attempting to weaken election oversight. They have their differences, of course, but López Obrador has turned out to be the Mexican Donald Trump.